Parents, behind bars

Pub date July 3, 2013

By Ross Mirkarimi

OPINION Nearly 50 percent of the 2.7 million people incarcerated in US prisons and jails are mothers and fathers. In San Francisco, about 40 percent of the prisoners are parents. For their children, the punishment does not fit the crime.

Federal and state recidivism registers at 78 percent; locally the rate is 65 percent and dropping. If we’re serious about breaking the cycle of incarceration, we must get serious about restoring the family ties of the incarcerated.

Studies support what common sense suggests — strengthening the parent-child bond reduces recidivism. It also reduces the prospect that children of the incarcerated are more likely to violate the law. While maintaining appropriate safety and legal protocols, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is reexamining policies that invariably damage or strain relationships between an inmate parent and child, starting with birth. In honor of Mother’s Day, on May 9, the Community Works Jail Arts Program, with our department, converted the lobby of the SF women’s jail into a temporary gallery of art created by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated mothers.

That provided a warm environment to announce a policy first in California: The Birth Justice Project, designed to affirm the reproductive rights of all incarcerated women and provide prenatal and postpartum care during the transformative experience of pregnancy, birth and parenthood. With the stewardship of Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an OB/GYN from UCSF, along with the Department of Public Health, Zellerbach Foundation, and our volunteer doulas (professional birth assistants), we’re radically distancing ourselves from the barbaric attitude of 33 states that still shackle women during labor. Rather, we seek to nurture the inimitable bond between mother and child.

While most jails and prisons shun a lactation policy, we’ve unveiled our pro-lactation program. Breast pumps, refrigeration, and delivery are provided around the clock, facilitated by our jail health professionals. While the arcane national practice is to separate baby and mother after the third day of birth, we’re working to maintain the connection. If we can’t do it through diversion (alternatives to incarceration), then we’ll continue to assess our facility in allowing mother and baby to stay together. I look forward to promoting breast feeding in San Francisco’s jails.

For children of incarcerated parents, the absence of a mother is the loss of a primary caregiver. Ninety percent of incarcerated fathers in the US report that while away, their children live with the child’s mother. In contrast, only 28 percent of incarcerated mothers report that their children live with their father. Routinely, her children are cared for by a grandparent or relative — and about 11 percent are placed in foster care. Many children are bounced from caregiver to caregiver during their parent’s incarceration.

These disruptions to a child’s life negatively affect their social and mental development. Acknowledging the sense of disconnection experienced by children whose parents are incarcerated also means we must grapple with the emotional poverty that increases the likelihood of criminal behavior. In San Francisco, we’re taking steps to bridge this disconnection by reforming visitation policies to facilitating regular contact between children and incarcerated parents.

The people in our jails will eventually be released and will return to communities that historically have been underserved. We’re trying to intensify resources toward exit planning for newly incarcerated parents and guardians. Depending on individuals cases, that could include a regiment of parenting classes, substance abuse and mental health treatment, domestic violence counseling, reunification counseling for parent and child, reading and writing comprehension, high school completion, life skills such as financial literacy, and vocational training.

Many people don’t know what the Sheriff’s Department does or the difference between us and the SFPD; we’ve launched a monthly e-newsletter to keep the public informed. To sign up or contact us at:

Ross Mirkarimi is sheriff of San Francisco